Friday, May 15, 2009

Why Mideast Christians Are Wary of Pope Benedict's Visit

by Andrew Lee Butters / Beirut

Ever since the year 1204 A.D., when the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade sacked the Christian city of Constantinople instead of "liberating" Jerusalem from Muslim rule, Christians in the Middle East have been understandably wary of emissaries of Rome. Today, as Christians in the Middle East welcome Pope Benedict XVI on his first trip to the Holy Land, many are worried that the unpredictable Pontiff might stir up passions at a time of religious strife and political cold war. "The thing that worries me most is the speech that the Pope will deliver here," said Archbishop Fouad Twal, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Wednesday. "One word for the Muslims and I'm in trouble; one word for the Jews and I'm in trouble. At the end of the visit the Pope goes back to Rome and I stay here with the consequences."

But another reason to be concerned about the trip is that one of its main purposes — to lend moral support to the diminishing number of Christians in the region — just isn't going to work. (See the five things the Pope must do on his Mideast trip.)

There is certainly reason to be concerned about the exodus from the Middle East of Christians, who once constituted 20% of the population, but whose numbers have fallen to just 2% now. The presence of Christians in the Holy Land is both an important symbol of continuity with the origins of the faith, and a reminder of the multisectarian and tolerant history of Arab and Islamic culture. That culture of tolerance is today under threat from the rise of religious extremism. But clash-of-civilizations pundits and Western leaders like the Pope often ignore how the West helped spark such intolerance, especially through its one-sided support of Israel. (Check out a story on the Pope's relationship with the Jews.)

Israel is a major stop on Pope Benedict's journey and a focal point of Western involvement in the Middle East. And while support for the modern revival of the ancient biblical nation runs deep among many Christians in America and Europe, the creation of Israel has been a disaster for Christians in the Middle East. Many of the Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced from their homes in 1948 — never to be allowed back — were Christians. The flood of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon helped spark a civil war between Muslims and Christians there. And the ongoing occupation of the West Bank is strangling the life out of those Christian communities that are left. A U.N. report released a week ago said that the Palestinian West Bank town of Bethlehem — Christ's birthplace and a major stop on the Pope's visit — is now almost totally controlled by Israel. (Read a story about the Pope's attitude toward Islam.)

The ongoing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has also helped fuel the rise of Islamic extremism, especially in countries that have unpopular peace agreements with Israel. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition to the American-backed Mubarak dictatorship, waged a small-scale terror campaign against both the government and the country's Coptic Christians during the 1990s. Since then, in an effort to derail the Islamist movement, the secular Mubarak regime has embraced some of its opponents' religiosity, and perhaps some of their anti-Coptic prejudice. Last month, in a supposed measure to prevent the spread of the H1N1 swine-flu virus, the government ordered the slaughter of every single pig in the country, even though there were no documented cases of the disease in Egypt and humans don't contact it from pigs. Pork-eating Copts worried that they were being set up as scapegoats.

Ironically, some of the best friends to Christians in the Middle East have been at odds with America and the West. The secular societies that formed in the 1950s and '60s in opposition to Israel — especially the Baathist regimes in Iraq and Syria, and Egypt under Nasser — were pretty good protectors of religious pluralism. About 5% or 6% of Iraq's population in the 1970s were Christian, and some of Saddam Hussein's most prominent officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, were Christians. But since the American invasion of Iraq, Christians have fled in droves, and constitute less than 1% of the population. Syria — which survived attempts by the Bush Administration to isolate the Assad regime — is still like a living museum of otherwise forgotten Christian sects and shrines.

Middle Eastern societies have also done much on their own to implode and create fertile grounds for extremism to flourish. But that doesn't mean that a speech from a foreign religious leader is going to heal mistrust and stop the cycle of violence that started 60 years ago with the creation of Israel. In fact, Western concern for the region's dwindling Christian societies reminds Muslims of the European colonial era, when British and French rulers elevated the region's Christian groups to positions of authority in order to manage their mostly Muslim empires.

Even Middle Eastern Christians have given up looking to the likes of the Pope for help. In Lebanon, the Middle Eastern nation with the largest concentration of Christians, roughly half of the country's Christians have broken away from their traditionally pro-Western leadership, forming a political alliance with Hizballah, the Shi'a Muslim anti-Israeli militant group. The leader of these breakaway Christians, a populist former general named Michel Aoun, is betting that the only way to secure a Christian future in Lebanon is to look east toward the rising power of Shi'a Islam. It may seem far-fetched now, but there may come a day when Christians hit the Arab streets to welcome not a Pope from Rome, but an ayatullah from Iran.